The Minority Report↓

The Politics of Religious Minorities in Muslim-Majority States: Old Challenges and New Trends by Ziya Meral

This is the fourth article from the Summer edition of The Review of Faith and International Affairs.

Meral, Ziya. “The Politics of Religious Minorities in Muslim-Majority States: Old Challenges and New Trends.” The Review of Faith and International Affairs (Vol. 9 Summer 2011): 25-30.

Map of the Muslim Population by Percentage in ...
Map of the Muslim Population by Percentage

This was the shortest of the articles thus far. It is also much more historically-orientated and does not provide as much analysis as laying out the historical record. It concludes with a few challenges and applications for the present, but on the whole is basically a historical framework of the treatment of religious minorities in Muslim-Majority states.

In this article Ziya divides the history into four different eras. (1) The Early Era (2) The Powerful Era (3) The Modern Era (4) The Contemporary Era.

The Early Era 610-660 AD

At the very beginning of its founding Islam itself was the minority religion. One of the Prophet Muhammad’s burdens was the polytheism of his people. So when he begins teaching a monotheism that will undercut the idol-worship it was not well received. This led the early Muslims to go from Mecca to Medina. There the message was more openly received and the community was able to consolidate.

During Muhammad’s time in Medina and triumphal return to Mecca, the Prophet emerged as a skillful political leader uniting tribes and demonstrating increasing political and ultimately military power. Thereafter, more domineering and harsher attitudes began to emerge. – Meral, 26.

While not a comprehensive Islamic history this statement provides some oversight to the importance that Muhammad had in the community. He was the religious leader, but was also the political and military leader as well. All the facets of the community were wrapped up in this one man. This helps to understand the vacuum that was created after his death in 632.

The state of non-Muslims during this period is described mostly as ambiguous. Some were friends= and some were foes. There are some instances of forced conversions and others where this was not the case. For really the first 50 years of Islam there was no real coherent framework.

The Powerful Era 661-1924

This second era is by far the longest and in many ways spans too much of a time period to be fully consistent. It stretches from the Ummayyad Dynasty in 661 all the way to the fall of the Ottoman and Qajar dynasties in 1923 and 1924 respectively. Over this extensive period a number of different schools emerged.

The principles of sharia as preached by the Prophet, recorded in the Qur’an, and demonstrated in the Hadith developed into various schools of thought and produced the texts which formulated Islamic jurisprudence. – Meral, 26.

As Islam and Islamic empires spread the desire for non-Muslims was for them to convert. This however was not the case in every instance. So the relations can eventually be summarized in this way:

Hence, generally speaking non-Muslims could dwell in Muslim lands and in theory could be exempted from sharia laws and any coercion to convert to Islam. In return, non-Muslims had to accept a heavy burden of taxation and accept that they had not political rights and were not citizens but merely denizens. The most sophisticated and well regulated version of this was seen in the millet  system in the Ottoman Empire. – Meral, 26.

This, in the general sense, was the state of affairs for most minorities under the various Islamic empires. Certainly there were instances of more freedoms and rights. There were also times of harsher treatments as well. Meral indicates that there is a battle of “revisionist history” taking place. Some camps try to portray a “golden era” from pre-colonialism when non-Muslim minorities and Muslim governments were on good terms. On the other hand some have advocated abuses on the other extreme to buttress arguments of incompatibility between Islam and modern ideas of human rights. Both sides are prone to overstating the reality.

Yet, the actual historical reality shows neither a golden era nor the dark age. Non-Muslims enjoyed relative freedoms but also serious restrictions and persecution at the hands of their Muslim rulers, depending on where and when and with whom they lived. – Meral, 26.

This is the summary of roughly 1300 years of history. A far from simple task.

The Modern Era 1900-1989

This is again a rather ambitious project to tackle without broad-brushing so much so as to really be unhelpful. Meral divides the modern era into two parts 1900-1967 and 1967-1989. During the first section most of the Muslim world was seeking independence and attempting to create some sort of unified state. In some instances Islam was viewed as a defining factor and non-Muslims were forced to assimilate or else faced persecution or elimination. In other instances ethnicity was the common bond and so an Arab could be either Christian or Muslim but by nature of being an Arab was a viable part of the community. Most of the nation-states at this time were built on a secular notion of the state and many flirted with ideas of socialism. However, Meral points to the Six Day War – and the defeat of multiple states and seizure of land by Israel – as a defining moment that signaled the failure of the secular state. This shifted the balance of power away from the secular and toward the Islamists.

At this point many of the Islamist leaders claimed that the Muslim world was the way it was because these nations had forgotten Islam. In this new world the biggest losers were the non-Muslims. While unlike Muslims of the Powerful era the minorities had equal rights on paper they still faced harsh exclusion in day to day living, with only a few exceptions.

In the end this era is “summarized by assimilation, exodus, marginalization, and fatal persecution of religious minorities across Muslim-majority countries.”

The Contemporary Era

In this era, as a result of the previous conditions, the number of non-Muslims has drastically diminished in the Middle East and North Africa. However, at the same time there has been a small but increasing community of non-Muslims emerging in the region. Some of the examples given include more than 35,000 Christians in Algeria. Even Iran has a growing number of conversions. What does this mean?

First, it challenges the homogenized narratives of the nation-states and now these groups have found themselves at odds with the state. In some instances this is viewed as a rejection of national identity.

Second, these conversions challenge the Islamist groups and have created an anomaly in the “us” versus “them” battle they use to explain the world. For Muslim background believers to become followers of another faith it raises a whole series of questions. These converts – apostates – share all of the moral, cultural, and political opinions  yet they differ only in religion. Some have imagined this as a subtle advancement of a “unified Christian West” to corrupt and destroy the social order. While modern conceptions of human rights have helped to limit violent persecution, subtler forms still exist in daily life. In some cases, as is being demonstrated presently in Iran, conversion may be cause for execution. The present case for religious minorities is bleak in most cases.


This historical survey has attempted to show both the good and the bad for religious minorities. There is the potential for minority religious views to co-exist alongside of a Muslim majority. The democratic uprisings of the Middle East have re-introduced the question of what is the place of minorities in these societies. Perhaps the future will offer a more meaningful level of freedoms for those of any faith.

Let us hope and pray that we have all learned our lesson in allowing xenophobia, racism and religious demonization to run free in the 20th century and do not repeat the same mistakes in the 21st century. – Meral, 29.

Part 4 of my review of the Summer 2011 edition of The Review of Faith and International Affairs. Read the introduction to the series here.

Part 1: Forced Faith↓

Part 2: Compelled to Tell↓

Part 3: Religiously Arguing for Religion↓


1 thought on “The Minority Report↓”

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